Posted in Prose

Reflections on credulity and credibility


Noel A. Ihebuzor

The incidence of celebrities, authority figures and eminent persons making commentaries on social affairs, the state of the economy and governance etc. is on the rise. We are now assailed from every corner by judgments of, and commentaries on people, places, periods and events by such celebrities and eminent persons. Not all of these judgments and commentaries are however backed by evidence. What should be our reactions before such claims, commentaries and judgements? Is there not a difference between an opinion and a fact? Are the opinions of a celebrity always right? Should we always believe them? Must we suspend criticality when processing the views of such persons?

The reflections below on credibility and credulity were prompted precisely by these questions. My hope is that by the time you have gone through these reflections, you would have come up with your own personal strategy and processes for sieving statements, claims and commentaries for facticity and accuracy, and are thus more able to separate facts from opinions, no matter their sources. Enjoy the reading. Let me also have the benefit of your comments on these reflections.

  1. The chances of a claim being believed as true are largely a function of two things – How the credible the source is & how credulous the receiver is!
  2. It is so easy for a credible source to deceive a credulous audience.
  3. That deception will continue to happen until the “ahaa” moment.
  4. Wisdom is discovering that even your long trusted, infallible and credible source can sometimes be economical with the truth!
  5. Credulousness/credulity exposes us to massive manipulation and exploitation.
  6. Credulity comes with huge social, emotional & economic costs.
  7. Not all that that your credible source puts forward is true!
  8. Do not mistake capacity for linguistic elegance with capacity for telling the truth. Lies are often packaged in beautiful prose.
  9. Raise your credulity threshold. Be more critical! “Shine your eyes”!
  10. The more critical you are, the more you are likely to discover flaws in the “perfect” logic of that credible source.
  11. Once you begin to discover flaws, inaccuracies, distortions and lies in your credible source, his/her credibility starts to wane.
  12. Healthy skepticism is one useful remedy to problems of credulity.
  13. In our attitudes/receptivity to statements from others, we are constantly exposed to two types of errors called Type I and Type II errors.
  14. Remember your research methods course from tertiary education? Type I versus Type II errors? A bit similar but not the same!
  15. Type I error in belief is known as erroneous incredulity- refusing to believe something that is true because of quarrels with the source!
  16. Type II – erroneous credulity – believing something that is false to be true because of your infatuation with the source!
  17. The challenge in life is how to avoid type 1 belief errors – erroneous incredulity whilst still being critical & “sieving” all statements.
  18. For type II belief errors, we simply have to shine our eyes. There are powerful people who would not brook any challenge to their views. All they desire is to hold people captive to their views and go to every length to ensure that such mental captivity perdures.
  19. One of the most difficult things to do is to maintain the right level of critical distance enough to evaluate and to challenge, where necessary, the views of someone who has distinguished herself/himself.
  20. Healthy skepticism towards the views and opinions of such a person is usually considered as indicative of either jealousy or outright incivility or impetuosity.
  21. And yet such persons have been known to exploit their credibility and to stretch it beyond limits.
  22. They have been known to exploit their credibility to call people names, to smear people, to ridicule others and to march boldly on spaces where even angels tremble to tiptoe over.
  23. All this they can do because they have been successful in one field of human endeavour or the other.
  24. Someone who has distinguished herself/himself in any given field invariably builds up some credibility as a result of success in that specific field of pursuit.
  25. It is not unusual for such a person to make commentaries in other fields of pursuit.
  26. Danger starts to loom when such a person begins to feel that credibility built up in one area immediately confers omniscience on her/him and elevates her/him to a pansophist.
  27. Unless checked, such a person may begin to use credibility gained in one field to become the supreme arbiter on every social issue under the universe.
  28. I call this tendency to use credibility in one field to seek credibility in another the transfer of credibility. Humans engage frequently in such transfer of credibility.
  29. Let me try to illustrate. We may have a case where we find a geophysicist making comments in the area of rock music.
  30. Where such comments are made on the basis of solid evidence, our respect for the person making the comments should grow.
  31. Where, however, the person making the comments is simply appealing, either explicitly or implicitly, to his/her established credibility in one field and building his/her right to be believed on that alone, then we should be on our guards.
  32. For example, that V.S. Naipaul said something on “Azonto” dance steps does make it true or false. Check his sources. Check his logic. Distinguish opinions from facts. Become more critical. If Naipul is simply transferring his credibility as winner of a Nobel prize for literature and using this to get you to an uncritical acceptance of his opinion, then sack that opinion. The opinions of a Nobel prize are not beyond falsification.
  33. Also that Niels Bohr said something, say on race and intercultural dialogue, does not make it true or false. Check his sources. Check his facts. Check his logic. Recognize his contributions to atomic physics but also recognize that expertise in atomic physics does not immediately confer competence in race and culture.  Raise your credulity threshold.
  34. Equally, that Einstein said something on politics does not make it true or false. Check the facts. Question his sources. Raise your own criticality
  35. These three examples are chosen to invite us all to be more critical.
  36. They are also intended to show that human beings can and do try to transfer their credibility from areas where they are authorities to others where they are not or may not be!
  37. In these areas where they are not authorities, such persons would still want to impose their views on others and present their opinions as if they were revealed truths.
  38. We are often victims of such people and suffer mind control by them for a number of reasons.
  39. One reason for our credulity before such people emerges from the interaction of herd feeling, laziness and inertia. Everybody believes them, so why should I not? And If I have believed them up till now, why should I start doubting them now?
  40. Another reason is that most of us have been socialized into uncritical acceptance of views by any authority figure. Such persons thus exercise a strong stranglehold on public opinion.
  41. The stranglehold these persons exercise on public opinion and thinking are aided by our culture of idolization of the successful.
  42. Such idolization soon morphs into “person idolatory” such that any attempt to examine this person’s views critically soon amounts to heresy!
  43. Anything this type/class of people says soon amounts to “cast in diamonds truths”.
  44. But such idolized persons soon over-reach themselves. Their formerly enraptured audiences soon begin to discover that they have feet of clay. People soon discover that not only are such people fallible, but they do tell lies and can be very petty and partisan.
  45. So, let me sum up –
  46. Credibility is a plus for the source; credulity is a negative for any audience.
  47. Credibility is a bit like virginity. Lose it and you have lost it!
  48. Credibility is an asset. Draw down recklessly on it without any replenishing and soon it runs out.
  49. Credibility is optimized in environments of high credulity.
  50. A celebrity uses her/his credibility to exploit the credulity of an uncritical public.
  51. Erroneous credulity is bad for any society.
  52. Losing one’s credulity is one key milestone in cognitive and emotional development.
  53. Celebrities are entitled to their personal opinions, but not all opinions are true!
  54. Name calling has a certain appeal but it still does not amount to a proof. Ask any lawyer!
  55. Concluding comment – let your speaker earn your confidence. Do not let him/her take advantage of or abuse your credulity.